The most common objection against the command to pursue joy is that Jesus commanded just the opposite when He called for our self-denial: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). We have dealt with this already (p. 241), but it may be helpful to draw in one other text to illustrate that biblical self-denial means “Deny yourselves lesser joys so you don’t lose the big ones.” Which is the same as saying: Really pursue joy! Don’t settle for anything less than full and lasting joy.
Consider Hebrews 12:15–17 as an example of how one person failed to practice self-denial, to his own destruction:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Esau lost his life because he preferred the pleasure of a single meal above the blessings of his birthright in the chosen family. This is a picture of all people who refuse to deny themselves the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). But note well! The main evil is not in choosing a meal, but in despising his birthright. Self-denial is never a virtue in itself. It has value precisely in proportion to the superiority of the reality embraced above the one denied. Self-denial that is not based on a desire for some superior goal will become the ground of boasting.
The third objection to the command to seek our joy can be stated like this:
You have argued that the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. You have said that if we try to abandon this pursuit, we cannot honor God or love people. But can you make this square with Romans 9:3 and Exodus 32:32? It seems that Paul and Moses do indeed abandon the pursuit of their own pleasure when they express a willingness to be damned for the salvation of Israel.
These are startling verses!
In Romans 9:3, Paul expresses his heartaches over the cursed condition of most of his Jewish kinsmen. He says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
In Exodus 32 the people of Israel have committed idolatry. The wrath of God burns against them. Moses takes the place of a mediator to protect the people. He prays, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of your book that you have written” (vv. 31–32).
First, we must realize that these two instances do not present us with the same problem. Moses’ prayer does not necessarily include a reference to eternal damnation like Paul’s does. We must not assume that the “book” he refers to here carries the same eternal significance that the “book of life” does, say, in Philippians 4:3 and Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; and 21:27.
George Bush (the Old Testament scholar, not the president of the United States!) argues that in Exodus 32:32 being blotted out of the book is tantamount to being taken out of life while others survive:
There is no intimation in these words of any secret book of the divine decrees, or of anything involving the question of Moses’ final salvation or perdition. He simply expressed the wish rather to die than witness the destruction of his people. The phraseology is an allusion, probably, to the custom of having the names of a community enrolled in a register, and whenever one died, of erasing his name from the number.
A person’s willingness to die is not necessarily at odds with Christian Hedonism. Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” There is no reason to think Moses stopped looking to the all-compensating reward when he struggled with the sin of Israel.
But this, of course, does not remove the main problem, which is Romans 9:3. Paul had written, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” This appears to be a willingness to abandon the pursuit of happiness. Did Paul then cease to be a Christian Hedonist in expressing this kind of love for the lost?
Notice that he says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed.” The reason for translating the verb as “I could wish” is that the Greek imperfect tense is used to soften the expression and show that it cannot be carried through. Henry Alford says, “The sense of the imperfect in such expression is the proper and strict one … the act is unfinished, an obstacle intervening.”8 Buist Fanning says that this “desiderative imperfect” is used “to contemplate the desire, but fail to bring oneself actually to the point of wishing.”9
The obstacle is the immediately preceding promise of Romans 8:38–39: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul knows it is impossible to take the place of his kinsmen in hell.
But he says he is potentially willing to! This is the problem for Christian Hedonism. We simply must take this seriously. Paul ponders the hypothetical possibility of a world in which such a thing might be possible. Suppose there were a world in which an unconverted sinner and a man of faith could stand before the bar of God to receive judgment. And suppose that if the saint were willing, God would reverse their roles. If the saint were willing, God would withdraw His saving grace from the saint so he becomes fit for hell in unbelief and rebellion, and He would give converting grace to the unbeliever so that he trusts Christ and becomes fit for heaven.
In such a world, what would love require? It would require total self-sacrifice. And the principle of Christian Hedonism would cease to apply. But mark well! This hypothetical world does not exist! God did not create a world in which a person could be eternally damned for an act of love.
In the real world God made, we are never asked to make such a choice: Are you willing to become damnable for the salvation of others? Instead, we are constantly told that doing good to others will bring us great reward and that we should pursue that reward.
Paradoxically, Paul’s willingness to reach for a hypothetical case of ultimate sacrifice is a deep and dramatic way of saying with as much force as he knows how, “This, even this, is how much I delight in the prospect of Israel’s salvation!” But immediately we see the impossibility of carrying through the wish: If their salvation were such a great delight to him, would hell really be hell? Could we really speak of hell as the place where Paul could achieve his deepest and noblest desire of love? This is the sort of incongruity you run into in hypothetical worlds that do not exist.
Happiness would be impossible in any case in such a world. For if God were to give a saint the option of becoming damnable to save another, such a saint could never live with himself if he said no. And he would suffer forever in hell if he said yes. He loses both ways.
But Christian Hedonism is not a philosophy for hypothetical worlds. It is based on the real world God has established and regulated in Holy Scripture. In this real world we are never urged or required to become evil that good may abound. We are always required to become good. This means becoming the kind of people who delight in the good, not just doing it dutifully. The Word of God commands us to pursue our joy.
Piper, John. 2003. Desiring God. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers.
Check out our Bible Study on the book of Philippians, using David’s Jeremiah’s book, Count It All Joy as a guide. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.